Friday, June 29, 2007

Stockholm Syndrome and You

Using the four criteria to determine if a person is experiencing Stockholm syndrome, Sara Lambert shows how chronically abused children are demonstrably victims of this syndrome. In "Captivity & The Stockholm Syndrome" the author describes the environment the child lives in who is experiencing ongoing abuse.

I have been convinced for a while now that many adult children of narcissists show signs that they are operating from a Stockholm syndrome perspective. The article is careful to state that:
It is important to emphasize here that nothing about the Stockholm Syndrome suggests the captive does anything wrong or abnormal. The situation is driven entirely by the abusive captor and responsibility for it, and for the captive's responses, lies directly with him.
I completely agree with this statement. This syndrome is a survival technique; it is a quite effective one at that. But in order to live a healthy adult life one has to recognize if their behaviors are still operating from the mindset of a captive so they can break what are now destructive habits and thought processes. What helped you survive as a child in an abusive environment will be largely detrimental if those same adaptive techniques are applied in different context.

One of the criteria of Stockholm syndrome is that the abuser seems to show some kindness occasionally:
This is probably one of the most confusing and damaging aspects to living with an abuser that survivors report. What can a child make of a father who cruelly sexually abuses her at night but, the next morning, makes her favorite breakfast? She is left with a mix-up between cruelty and kindness, love and hate, which her undeveloped brain can not unravel, and so which may be with her far into her adult life.
I want to focus on this particular statement because this is what I most often observe in adult children of narcissists--they are confused and not sure if their parent is an evil abusive narcissist because they can remember times when their abuser was kind. There are happy memories here and there which the individual thinks are indications that their abuser is just a bit misguided at times, or has "anger management" issues, that if brought under control then the wonderful and loving person hiding in their abusive parent would be able to come out.

...which may be with her far into her adult life

Indeed. Does this describe you? How confused are you by happy memories with your abusive parent?

I have stressed in various posts on this blog that an occasional good deed doesn't weigh against a systematic and chronic series of abuses. It is very common for chronically abused individuals to try to put the fault on themselves when their parent continues to display abusive behaviors. Even though the adult has likely escaped from day to day control by their abusive parent, they often act as though they don't have control over their own lives. They often will abdicate their own desires and needs if those desires and needs contradict what they know their abusive parent would want. You have to make a decisive effort in order to break the psychological control your abusive and narcissistic parent instilled in you when you were their captive.

One component of the Stockholm syndrome is the belief that your abuser will kill you if you don't comply. This may throw some of you off if you don't recognize that it is possible to believe your abuser has power to kill you even if they didn't overtly tell you or show you that intent. My own mother did issue a direct death threat to me when I was around six years of age, but I remember having the feeling from a much younger age that my mother was life to me. A child is not insensible to their dependence on their parent(s). They are very aware that they depend on their parents for life itself. A child can be very young (as young as three) and have clear thoughts that if something happened to their parent they themselves would die. So, even without overt death threats, a child is very aware that their life is one that completely depends on the adult(s) in her life to feed her, clothe her and protect her. When a parent shows disapproval by emotional or physical withdrawal a child can feel like life itself is endangered. A child will often comply with any request of a parent who uses this cruel method to get compliance from the child. Parental withdrawal feels like a death threat from the child's perspective.

I hope you will read the linked article and carefully assess whether or not you experienced Stockholm syndrome as a child. If so, then ask yourself how much your behaviors today are still dictated by this dynamic with your abuser.
While it is hugely distressing for a survivor to realize that, as a child, she was so trapped, helpless, and manipulated, on the other hand this realization provides her with the freedom to put that past behind her and understand she now has control over herself and her life, and she does not have to remain hostage to her abuser any more.
That last statement is the intent and purpose of my blog. Whether or not you feel like it is true, you do have the freedom to make new choices. Choices which will free you to assert control over your own life. Freedom to break off from your abuser without any longer having to put their feelings and "needs" ahead of your own.

Life is way too precious and far too short to continue to live in the slavery your parent subjected you to as a child. Now is the time to sever the identification with your abuser which keeps you looking at your world through the abuser's eyes. As long as you continue to operate from the Stockholm syndrome you are prevented from living your life as an autonomous and mature adult. You will find yourself trapped in an infantile state which believes that your good feelings about yourself can only come from the approving glance of your narcissistic parent. Today is a good day to set your feet on the path of autonomy and wave good-bye to emotional dependence
on your abuser. They are not looking out for your best interests. They expect you to look out for theirs. This dynamic will never stop unless you stop participating in it.

There is nothing that justifies what they've done, so stop justifying it and start living.


Anonymous said...

I cut ties with my N-mom five years ago and I was just wondering if you've done the same. I lead a much more peaceful life without her but I still feel a loss that I don't have a mother to turn to.

Anna Valerious said...

Yes, I have severed ties with my N-mom. It has been almost six years since I last saw her. A little over two years since I stopped the sporadic written communication. I don't feel a loss because my mother was never any comfort to turn to. Turning to her only created more problems. I'm sorry you still feel a loss. What do you miss about your N-mom? Do you miss her or an idea of her?

Holly Roark said...

Just a week ago I rented a documentary on the Patty Hearst kidnapping because I was trying to understand more about the Stockholm Syndrome.

I totally think I suffered from Stockholm Syndrome for many years. When I saw this on your blog, I was actually surprised to see someone else think of the NPD relationship in that regard. (I just started toying with the idea a few weeks ago.)

I have always been totally clear in my head that I hated my mother to pieces, but it never occurred to me until recently to stop looking at myself through her eyes. That's where the identification and the Stockholm Syndrome comes in to play. She totally took over my mind, even though I fought her and rejected her. She'd gotten in there so deep that I didn't know that was HER voice telling me that I was unworthy of love. In fact, I didn't even realize I felt that way about myself. The stuff was so deep, I just "acted out" self hate without even knowing it. It's like she hypnotized me and it's only recently that I have broken the spell--that's how it feels, like I have come out of a trance, and I am 38.

I am so happy to be coming to grip with my N mom's disorder. It seems that every day I notice more clearly something that I never realized (or just took for granted) all these years with her. It's so easy to get caught up in the N's twisted reality that you don't see it as twisted--it's just THEM and you deal with them on THEIR terms because it's your mom. For example, I realize now that my mother is ALWAYS acting, always on stage, I mean to the extent that she cannot just sit down and "shoot the shit" like the rest of us. You know how with normal people you can just say, "hey what's up? oh yeah well I went to the car wash blah blah blah, then I went to the bookstore, what about you..." She has NEVER had a conversation like this. She always has some kind of AFFECTED speech and there's always a "tone" to it, not to mention she's either slamming someone, or ME, or guilt-tripping, etc. I mean, it's just NEVER what I would consider a NORMAL conversation. It's as if she doesn't even bother to speak at all unless she can get something out of it, like victim blood to feed on. FOR REAL. There's always an angle to anything she has to say, always some kind of manipulation. I have never actually sat down and thought about it this way before because I have known her since she gave birth to me so it just seemed like it was just "her". Now I know it is this fucked up psychopathic disorder. She is always wearing that mask and always acting. I can't believe it. It's like she's just a shell of a person. I wonder what would happen if the mask came off. What would I see? A demon of some kind? A scared little piece of shit? I wonder.

Lena said...

At 42 I am scared shitless of my NM and do not like her anymore, let alone love her. I have visited her once in the last year. She 'forced' me to change Doctor appointment times just so that she could have her 'perfect' Xmas with her 'perfect' family. I aquiesced to avoid a fight. I want to break all ties with her and reclaim my sanity and self-esteem. Why do I feel so guilty about this decision? She did after all give me life. She exploited me financially in as many ways she could find and I saw none of the money, from a very young age. I am angry with myself for not dissing her a long time ago. Now I know that after all these years, I am not a bad person. She just convinced me of it.

Anna Valerious said...


You feel guilty because you've been trained to feel guilty for not giving your mother what she wants. There is a certain amount of societal disapproval for cutting off a parent as well. Not talking about cutting off your parent with those whose business it is not is a great way to minimize the disapproval of society. As for your will have to go against how you feel and go with your head on this one. I hope you'll keep reading in the archives here because I deal with the many facets of broken thinking that can keep a person bound to an evil parent. Please, set yourself free.

TheArchitect said...

While I agree that cutting ties with an abusive parent is often the only pragmatic solution to maintaining one's mental health as an adult, I wonder if it's wise or responsible to blindly--albeit supportively--assume your commenters are all correctly diagnosing their parents as being narcissists. There are a myriad of other disorders that can facilitate abusive behavior in a parent; not all of them are as seemingly insurmountable as narcissism.

Anna Valerious said...

Thank you for questioning my blind yet unwise support of those who comment on my blog. Here's the reasoning behind my support. First of all, if someone has landed on my blog and finds resonance with their own experiences then that constitutes much proof of the reality the reader has been dealing with a serious degree of narcissism in their loved one. Then there is this line of thinking on my part: let's say some individual has misdiagnosed their parent (or whoever) with having a malignant degree of narcissism and that isn't really the case. Let's say, even, that this reader of my blog is themselves a narcissist. Then my prescription of going no contact is still good advice. If the reader is the one who is the big problem in the relationship then no contact will be a mercy to those who are being unfairly accused! No contact is not aggressive or abusive when between adults. When it is applied in the context of a completely unworkable relationship it is a merciful and even a kind act. It is the opposite of vengeful. It is a quiet acknowledgement by the one leaving the relationship that they've accepted reality.

As to your assertion that other disorders, perhaps less insurmountable than NPD, may be the root cause of the abuse I ask you this: why is an adult child obligated to stay in an abusive relationship with a parent regardless of the cause of the bad behavior of the parent?? Why must abuse be tolerated? I have given many cogent arguments on my blog against this facile line of reasoning. Why is it the job of the adult child to find the root cause and then surmount it? I find your basic premise completely flawed and unworkable. Adults can make their own decisions as to what relationships they want to be in. And just because an adult is related to another adult doesn't mean one of those adults must endure all various forms of abuse for the pleasure of the other. The abusive adult be they the parent, sibling or otherwise, is the one responsible for changing their own behavior. If they refuse to change then we are not the ones responsible for making the relationship work. We are free agents. We can walk away and no crime has been committed.

Another premise underlying your contention about whether or not a commenter has correctly diagnosed their parents is the belief that a mere "layperson" isn't qualified to apply labels. I deal somewhat with this here:

My belief is that the person who has been in the relationship is in a much better position to determine whether or not NPD is present once equipped with some good information than the far-removed mental health professional who may or MAY NOT understand NPD and has NO personal experience with the narcissist. The narcissist creates havoc in the lives of others, yet it is the victim of the narcissist who often lands in the psychologist's chair. Far too many psychologists know little of the day to day workings of NPD and will often, therefore, assume the person in the chair is the one with the pathology. Much of psychology's vaunted "science" is no such thing. I trust an eye witness account of a narcissist's behavior far more than the eggheads who label from afar.

I suggest you read my blog entries on The Savior Complex one of which is here:

Ain't none of us can change the persistently abusive person be they narcissist or some other breed of abuser. To imply that people can and should is something I'll never promote here on this blog. Just because the abuser happens to be a parent doesn't entitle a different set of rules to live by.

Danae said...

Thank you for this... I was researching Stockholm Syndrome in my effort to wrap my brain around why my kids acted like they did when I divorced their narcissist father. Half of them have no contact with me but will go to his house to visit. I believe that I had a sort of Stockholm Syndrome that kept me with him for so long, buying in to his psychopathy. It hurts and dumbfounds me that my kids would throw me under the bus for him. Oh the losses! He continues to consume to this day.
I feel validated by what I read on your blog.
Yes, the guy in the chair looked at ME and I was always the one with the problem. I guess he was right in a way. My problem was my husband. Once I got rid of him I found a peace that I hadn't known for over 30 years. It wasn't me it wasn't me it wasn't me.
Thank you.

Danae said...

Thank you for this... I was researching Stockholm Syndrome in my effort to wrap my brain around why my kids acted like they did when I divorced their narcissist father. Half of them have no contact with me but will go to his house to visit. I believe that I had a sort of Stockholm Syndrome that kept me with him for so long, buying in to his psychopathy. It hurts and dumbfounds me that my kids would throw me under the bus for him. Oh the losses! He continues to consume to this day.
I feel validated by what I read on your blog.
Yes, the guy in the chair looked at ME and I was always the one with the problem. I guess he was right in a way. My problem was my husband. Once I got rid of him I found a peace that I hadn't known for over 30 years. It wasn't me it wasn't me it wasn't me.
Thank you.

Unknown said...

I was thrilled to see this.. my ex put me threw this and is now doing the same to my daughter. He has custody of her and she exhibits all of my former behaviors... any advice on how to get her out and help her would be greatly appreciated.. she is 13

Tundra Woman said...

Your abusive Mugger’s behavior around the “missing record” followed by her threat to kill you and her ensuing “gifting” of that cheap medal was also classic example of Stockholm/Trauma Bonding. I have one from when I was a toddler and in retrospect on the one hand was terrifying, but on the other damn good reason to eventually estrange from mine completely. She shredded her “mom” card that day-and diabolically glued it back together the next day. The only thing that changed from my toddler self being hit so hard she sent me flying across the kitchen floor for trying to balance myself by reaching out to steady my new, unpracticed walking skill by reaching for her skirt was a couple feet in height, a couple decades and a lot more of the same shit.

(Hope you don’t mind, but periodically I revisit here and it’s like catching up with an old friend again-hope you and your’s are well!)